When I bought Me Before You at my local Waterstones, I was in a bad mood. I was sad and despondent and pessimistic about the world. Bombs were being thrown on the city of Brussels, which is not that far from where I live, in Amsterdam. So I went in and picked out a book that looked like it would cheer me up; the lettering was in bright pink and the book came highly recommended.
That was my first mistake. Never buy a book when you are looking for emotional support. For me, fictional friends and worlds are one of the most important sources of solace, but the familiar peaceful feeling of losing yourself in a book cannot be found in a bookshop. That feeling comes in little bursts of energy from books you read as a child, characters you have known for years and stories your mother used to read to you when you had the flu.
Yet I brought my copy of Me Before You home, and eagerly started reading. Less than twenty-four hours later I was finished and just about ready to kill someone, or myself. Just in case I have not yet convinced you that this is a book best left to stay on the shelf forever, be warned that there are spoilers ahead.
If you haven’t read it and aren’t planning to, here’s what happens: A twenty-something named Louisa is hired to provide care for a thirty-two year old man who lost the use of his body from the neck down after a terrible traffic accident. Louisa soon finds out that this man, Will, is planning to have himself euthanized in six months unless someone manages to change his minds. So Lou conceives of ways to broaden his horizons, to convince him that life is meaningful and worthwhile, even when you can no longer use your legs to climb a mountain or skydive out of an airplane over the Grand Canyon. In spite of all of Louisa’s efforts and the fact that she and Will eventually fall in love, he still chooses to end his life.
Now is probably the time to mention that I, myself, have lived my whole life with a disability that limits me in small ways. I can walk, I can swim, I can cycle, I can even, when chased by hungry monsters, run a little, but I can do none of these things as well as the able-bodied can and I’m used to it. For me, it has always been this way. For Will Traynor, the rich, entitled over-achieving protagonist of Me Before You, disability is an unexpected hurdle he is not willing to jump. His problem is one of acceptance, rather than actual health. If Will had somehow come to terms with his limitations, if he had gotten his head out of his arse for long enough to take in what the whole world was telling him, he may well have chosen to live.
This is what the world, and Louisa, said: Will had not lost the ability to feel joy. Instead, he had allowed himself to feel bitter. He had not lost his capacity for empathy or affection. Instead, he decided to define romance by the mainstream rulebook of the able-bodied, and in doing so, declared himself incapable of love. He had not lost everything that made life worthwhile. Instead, he decided that the only worthwhile things were the ones he could no longer do. It was the state of his mind, not his body, that killed him.
I despise the idea of romantic love saving you from depression or hopelessness. I despise Bella Swan and her childish inability to be her own person, separate from Edward the sexy vampire, and to find happiness within herself. I despise the codependent stranglehold some stories call true love. But Louisa didn’t expect Will to live for her. She never asked him to. She wanted to show him that there were plenty of reasons he should live for himself. She gave him a computer to communicate with the outside world. She gave him music, which he could still listen to, and literature, which he could still enjoy, and conversation and laughter and a view of the sunset. She gave him the sand between his toes and the water of a swimming pool to float in. In return, he spat her in the face.
Since I don’t just want to tell you what not to read, here are some recommendations for great books that deal with the same themes as Me Before You, but handle these issues in a more sensitive way. If it is tear-jerking romance you’re after, take out your copy of The Fault In Our Stars. Try The Notebook. Actually, try any book by Nicholas Sparks. If you want something a bit more hefty, read Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I found Atonement to be so gripping and devastatingly tragic that I’ve never finished it. I was afraid I could not bear the ending.
If you want to read a lighthearted yet truthful book about disability, try Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. If you’re really desperate for ugly crying, read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Never have I read a book that deals with disability in a more honest and respectful way. A Little Life never belittles the suffering of the disabled, or pities their shortcomings. In it, Yanagihara respects that disabled people are complex of mind and body, and that although their disability adds to this complexity, it never defines their character.
If, like I did, you just want an optimistic read to cheer you up, I’d recommend Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, by Winifred Watson. Once the book has put a smile on your face, watch the equally uplifting movie adaptation. Miss Pettigrew and the unlikely shenanigans of her social circle are truly a delight.
Most importantly, whether you are living with an able or disabled body, choose not to be like Will Traynor. Choose to find joy and strength in the world around you, in the pleasures that are at your disposal. “You only get one life. It’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible,” says Will to Louisa. Too bad he couldn’t live by this wisdom, but decided to die for it instead.